Are CRPGs good for nothing but reinforcing capitalist values? Is there nothing else for us but looting, slaying anything that isn’t “one of us,” and romanticizing that bloody climb up the social and corporate ladder?
I know I’m probably driving some of you guys and gals batty with all of this academic stuff, but the truth is, I’ve so immersed in it these days (I am a prof, after all) that it’s about all I have time to think about. Fortunately, most of the theoretical stuff I teach (or, at least, attempt to teach) to students is nicely applicable to videogames.
This week, we’ve been exploring the “Neo-Marxist” perspective, which isn’t to be confused with Soviet-style communism. Nor do I consider myself a Neo-Marxist (though I do think it’s useful to think about how our economy shapes our beliefs and everyday lives). Instead, we’re just exploring how material conditions and economic practices shape our “dominant ideology” about who ought to be empowered. Ideology is a bit of a slippery concept–different critics will use it differently–but for the book we’re reading (Sellnow), it’s more or less what we consider to be common sense, and determines who we consider to be with us in the “us and them” dichotomy. Whoever is “disempowered” in your ideology gets “Othered,” or placed in the “them” category and disadvantaged somehow–probably given worse jobs, lower income, or subjected to a glass ceiling. The key to this concept is understanding that we’re all subsumed in an ideology–there’s no outside perspective you can reach where you can view things Objectively. Instead, all of our values, laws, norms, beliefs, popular culture works–the whole thing–is shaped by this largely unconscious (we might think of it as a cultural unconscious) aspect of our being.
I take a cruder view of all this: The people with the most material wealth (money, property, influence, etc.) determine, intentionally or not, what the rest of us think is “common sense.” If you take a contrary position–say, you think the rich should be more heavily taxed–you may be Othered, and subjected to discrimination, fewer promotional opportunities, denied a job at all, viewed as a simpleton, etc. Folks more heavily indoctrinated will make typical arguments, such as “The rich people provide jobs for the rest of us,” and so on, eventually ostracizing you if you keep it up. Keep in mind that it’s not necessary for the rich themselves to fight you–they can rely on the, for lack of a better word, brainwashed masses to keep you in check.
Most Neo-Marxists would, I think, also argue the rich themselves are brainwashed, buying their own hype, as it were, and convincing themselves they deserve their wealth and privileges and you don’t. The ideology also does a good job shielding “obvious” misconduct in various ways–for instance, pushing old racist or sexist practices deep underground, so they’re much harder to detect and thus criticize. Indeed, the whole concept of the corporation is a good example of how these elites manage to shift a great deal of their personal responsibility for the messes we find ourselves in onto an abstract concept. Plus, the mass media is quick to celebrate and deeply associate the very rich with a deeply generous spirit, emphasizing over and over again how much they donate to charity or how they possess some unique form of intelligence or spirit that made them worthy of all that fortune.
Meanwhile, if you get too riled up about the perceived unfairness of making a pittance while someone else makes ten times your salary, you’re simply told that the disparity is your fault–you didn’t study hard enough, work enough, you’re not applying yourself, etc. And besides–would you really want to “redistribute wealth,” when, who knows, maybe next week you’ll win the lotto or finally land that dream job–would you want to have to then give it all up to the Government? You get the idea. Ideology has us very deep in its clutches.
I probably butchered that, but let’s move on to the topic here: videogames, particularly CRPGs. Sellnow argues that pop culture works “reinforce or reject status quo power structures regarding socioeconomic status and materialism as normal and common sense.” Some games, therefore, should be seen as being in harmony with the dominant ideology, reinforcing “wholesome” values such as accruing large amounts of material wealth, demarcating a clear “us and them” (we’re good; they’re bad), and (to borrow a term from Bogost) employing a “procedural rhetoric” that demonstrates the whole process just works. Thus, if you work hard, stay within the offered paradigms, you’ll get lots of great things and rise to the top of the social hierarchy, battling the ingrates at the gate along the way.
This is precisely what happens in almost every CRPG I’ve ever played. It’s all about the loot, baby.
But there are, certainly, striking examples of CRPGs that seem to reject these status quo power structures. The one that springs to my mind is Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV, which introduces the well-known virtues system with procedures for punishing bad behavior. However, interestingly, charity is conspicuously absent from Garriott’s list (though, arguably, “sacrifice” comes close). Instead, Garriott’s virtues seem more in line with those of a good and ideal capitalist, such as Garriott himself. After all, only a few very extreme capitalists would openly admit (or even believe themselves to be) lacking in honesty, compassion, love, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. How many times, for instance, have you heard stories that showed some super-rich person was very humble?
Another example springs to mind. In Champions of Krynn (and other games like it), certain classes (the Knight of Solamnia) have taken vows of poverty and must give up some of their gold when they enter a town. As I recall, there were ways around this, but here’s a game that I think does reject at least one part of the capitalist ideology–to be the best fighter, you must be generous and not care so much about hoarding money. This is so because the mechanics of the game privilege knights as characters.
Perhaps nothing rankles a well-steeped citizen of a capitalist country more than the idea of a vow of poverty. Why shouldn’t we get to keep what we earn? Why should we be forced to give away our money to lazy bums? But wait–I could use that money more than that stupid starving person. I’m just brainstorming here, mind you.
World of Warcraft introduced a “monk” class in the last expansion, and initially I was very intrigued since this class in other games is usually known for rejecting material weapons and armor in favor of spiritual ones. It would have been interesting to have a class in WOW who could not wear any items or wield any weapons–that would have, essentially, eliminated the need for money and loot. Assuming they also made this character more powerful than any other class, it really would have sent a powerful message to the player base about materialism.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, the monk is just as materialistic as the rest of them. Sad panda.
At any rate, this has gotten me to think about how a CRPG might offer an “oppositional reading” to our cultural ideology, forcing players to think (and enact) alternative ways of life instead of just reinforcing it.